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Strike 4 Repeal, Dublin 2017. Remizov via Shutterstock

'Our reproductive health laws have come to the attention of the UN Torture Committee'

Ireland’s abortion laws are cruel, inhuman, degrading and discriminatory, writes Niall Behan.

WHEN THE INTERNATIONAL experts on the United Nations Convention Against Torture reviewed Ireland last week, one of their principal areas of concern was reproductive coercion.

Felice Gaer, the Committee’s Vice-Chair and its longest serving member, grilled the state delegation about Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution—the Eighth Amendment—and the ways in which a woman’s right to informed consent and bodily autonomy during pregnancy and childbirth are affected by this provision.

And she had many questions about what she termed “this serious, difficult subject in Ireland of abortion”.

Repeated concerns and criticisms

She cited the repeated concerns and criticisms of international human rights bodies about the harmful impact of Ireland’s abortion laws on women and girls. She referred to rulings of the UN Human Rights Committee in 2016 and 2017 which upheld individual complaints by women who were denied access to abortion in Ireland, holding that the prohibition and criminalisation of abortion subjected the women to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

She was clearly shocked that despite Ireland’s obligation following these rulings to reform its law and ensure that no woman face such violations in the future, no legal change has yet taken place.

Continuing the theme of the ill treatment of pregnant women and girls by the state, Ms Gaer asked the delegation question after question about responses to victims of historical abuse, such as forced symphysiotomy in hospitals and the ill-treatment meted out to women in Magdalene laundries, and in Mother and Baby and other homes where women and girls who became pregnant outside marriage were coerced into giving up their children for adoption.

Why do human rights monitoring bodies focus so much attention on these issues?

With good reason. When they examine Ireland they are confronted with a pattern of ill-treatment that violates the norms of international human rights law.

In relation to abortion, the international human rights experts are appalled at a legal framework that mandates harsh criminal sanctions on women and healthcare providers if abortion is provided in any other circumstances than risk to life.

They are shocked that the law requires doctors to allow a pregnant woman’s health to deteriorate until there is a risk to her life before intervening to carry out a termination, regardless of the risks to her future health and wellbeing.

Harms caused by the denial of abortion

As a provider of reproductive healthcare, the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) has made submissions and presentations to many UN treaty monitoring bodies about the harms caused by the denial of abortion in Ireland.

We bring evidence from our services about the burden Ireland’s abortion laws place on women who opt not to continue an unintended pregnancy or a pregnancy that has become a crisis.

When an aspect of healthcare is criminalised, the burden of accessing care is shifted from the State and onto women. The burdens inevitably fall most heavily on those who are disadvantaged or who experience discrimination: minors, women with disabilities, women on low incomes, women at risk of intimate partner violence, ethnic minority women, and asylum-seeking women and others who cannot travel freely travel to another State.

These women disproportionately experience delays in accessing services. And, increasingly, women and girls are risking prosecution and harm to their health by self-inducing clandestine abortions within Ireland.

The Eighth Amendment institutionalises ill treatment 

When Ms Gaer used the terms “serious” and “difficult” in her comments about abortion, it is clear she was familiar with Irish abortion law in all its dreadful detail.

In his remarks to the Committee, the Minister of State for Justice, David Stanton TD, described abortion as a “highly politicised and divisive issue” in Ireland. This is no answer to the Committee’s questions: international human rights law allows no excuse or exceptions for ill-treatment.

The Eighth Amendment institutionalises ill treatment and reproductive coercion into the Irish Constitution. Ireland’s abortion laws are cruel, inhuman, degrading and discriminatory. They violate international human rights obligations and fall far short of international best healthcare practice.

That Ireland’s reproductive health laws have come to the attention of the UN Torture Committee should shock all those who care about human rights.

Ireland must end reproductive coercion, fulfil its obligations under international human rights law and place women’s human rights, health, informed consent and autonomy at the heart of reproductive health care.

Niall Behan is CEO of the Irish Family Planning Association.

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